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Is the Coal Fired Power Plant the Solution to the City’s Energy Problem?


Do we really need to have a firsthand experience in order to learn? That’s a question I am posing to our leaders who are pushing for the Coal Fired Power Plant here in Zamboanga.

Indeed the need to increase the supply of power is very much important but is the Coal Fired Power Plant only the solution to this problem?

I might as well ask each one of you to open your minds and understand how this Plant could bring devastation to our beloved City. Learning the adverse effect of it should not necessarily be experienced by the Zamboangueños.

The United States, for example uses Coal Fired Power Plants since the late 1800s. While that technology has in some ways benefited them, they now recognize the ecological hazards and health risks associated with using coal as an energy source.

Coal by itself is not harmful; however, the byproducts of burning coal raise serious health and environmental issues.

Coal Power-Plant Pollution

Coal-burning plants are some of the worst industrial polluters in the United States, producing approximately one-third of  carbon dioxide (CO2, a major contributor to global warming), 40% of  mercury (highly toxic if ingested or inhaled ), one-quarter of  nitrogen oxide (an ingredient found in smog) and two-thirds of  sulfur dioxide (a component of acid rain). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contends that sulfur dioxide promotes heart disease and asthma, while nitrogen oxides destroy lung tissue.

Additional hazardous byproducts produced by coal-burning plants include, arsenic, chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese, zinc, radionuclides and particulate matter. Each type of coal produces different levels of these pollutants, all of which negatively impact both the environment and our health.

Mercury, a known carcinogen, is of particular concern as it poisons fish in bodies of water miles away. Greenpeace reports that even at minimum levels, this neurotoxin has been shown to cause reduced intelligence in hundreds of thousands of children born annually. Mercury emissions occur at rates of approximately 25 pounds per 100 megawatts at the average coal plant, making coal-fired plants the largest single contributor of mercury pollution in the United States.

Radionuclides are unstable atoms that, if leaked into the environment, cause radioactive contamination. When people or animals are exposed to the contamination, they can suffer the effects of radiation poisoning including genetic issues such as cancer and abnormal or failed births.. A coal-fueled plant has been known to produce more radioactive material than a nuclear power plant within industry regulations.

The American Lung Association (ALA) released a report in March 2011 offering this startling statistic: “Particle pollution from power plants is estimated to kill approximately 13,000 people a year.” The ALA report singled out coal-fired power plants as among the worst offenders.

Catastrophic Accidents

Beyond the day-to-day danger of burning coal to produce energy, there is the devastating impact of plant malfunctions. In December 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) reported the failure of a holding pond used by a coal-fired electric plant. When heavy rains washed away the holding-pond dike, more than 2.2 million pounds of hazardous waste flooded 300 acres in east Tennessee. Even after the best cleanup effort, the area will remain polluted with dangerous byproducts for decades.

It remains impossible to quantify the amount of poisons released by the above incident, but in one year, this plant reportedly produced 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium, and 140,000 pounds of manganese, much of this held in the holding pond and all of which can cause cancer, liver damage, neurological trauma and more. The TVA, in conjunction with the EPA, warned that pets and children should avoid contact with the toxic materials.

The EPA reported that high levels of arsenic, lead and thallium were found in samples taken from downstream water sources, where hundreds of dead fish were found. While the authority is using heavy construction equipment to address the cleanup efforts, officials cannot predict how long it will take nor the final costs involved.

Clean Coal Claims

In order to reduce the devastating ecological and health effects of coal-fired power plants, coal-industry advocates are touting new “clean coal” technologies. As a start, many coal-powered plants are recycling some their dangerous byproducts into useful materials. For example, the byproducts of fly and bottom ash—previously dumped into landfills—are being transformed into concrete, asphalt and masonry blacks. Another byproduct, synthetic gypsum, is being used in the production of drywall and chalk.

Greenpeace and other environmental groups, however, believe there is no such thing as clean coal. They claim the coal industry’s touting of the term “clean coal” in their advertising is “greenwashing” or propagandizing.

If the United States is considering its stance on the Coal Fired Power Plant, why would we take a risk of bringing that to the City?

There are always other alternative sources of energy. We must take action now before it’s too late.

By: Ronnie A. Natividad

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